Saturday, July 15, 2006

Dynamic communities supported by hobbled donors?

Etienne Wenger has commented that it was a bit of a surprise that businesses became interested in the idea of cultivating communities of practice more quickly than schools. I think that creative destruction has something to do with it. Businesses have had to accept the idea that they need to make an effort to accelerate individual and collective learning -- and a community of practice approach is both natural and actionable.

While the idea of creative destruction describes dynamic change at an economic level, we've probably all experienced how smaller-scale change is going on in the communities in which we participate. Topics change, new people join, leaders come and go, etc. But communities are very much affected by the change (e.g., creative destruction) or resistance to change that exists in their surrounding environment.

What does this have to do with development? I was at a lunch meeting today sponsored by the Northwest Education Cluster, a community of people and businesses in the Portland area that are involved in education. A young woman sitting next to me described the project she was working on; she said it was a difficult project because it involved bringing foundations together to talk about how they could work together on a set of knotty issues. I asked her why she thought that was so difficult. She suggested that many foundations are restricted in specific ways by their articles of incorporation, and that goes beyond the normal tendency of every organization to become set in its ways. That got me to thinking about how foundations, like governments and other non-profits, can be hobbled by explicitly stated goals that might seem to be too narrow or limited for a business. On some level businesses have to be committed first and foremost to survival in an environment of creative destruction, and that may require them to change their goals, composition, structure, or methods of working.

And that got me to thinking about foundations that support communities of practice. Their donations may come with strings attached that could be problematic for communities. Governments (local or national) and other non-profits may need to impose requirements at the same time that they offer to provide some (much needed) support for a community of practice. From another point of view, once a community is established, it may be a good idea to look at the characteristics of a donor and ask:
  • Does the donor have to impose restrictions that will limit a community's growth in terms of membership, topic focus, or style
  • Can those restrictions be renegotiated? Are they unconscious, perhaps?
  • Is the community more exposed to more environmental change than the donor? (That is, creative destruction affects community member's practice in ways that the donor might find problematic?)
  • And perhaps most importantly, is the donor's support going to be withdrawn suddently or at a planned point in time?
Each one of those questions could be a starting point for conversations within the community (or within the community's leadership group) that could lead in many different directions:

  • The relationship with the donor might be perfect. Carry on!
  • The relationship might be problematic, and needs to be renegotiated.
  • The community needs to figure out how to function with no external support.
  • The community needs to find additional or replacement support that will meet its needs in the future.


josien kapma said...

nice to meet you in joitskes house John, and interesting topic!
From my experience in dev'mnt cooperation I can see very clearly what you mean. that is partly why, now, I'm looking for different, more autonomous sponsorship models. Like membership fees ~though there are other drawbacks here.

John David Smith said...

Recognizing and supporting synergies between the two sides is probably the real goal, don't you think, Josien?

Obviously development organizations and foundations or governments in general can contribute significant resources (financial and intellectual). But the problem is that they may tend to want a sponsored community to act just like the donor organization.

I wonder what kinds of intermediate activities you could get a develoment organization to sponsor that would develop more autonomy in the longer term?